Flowers for the Dead

They say that gardening is good for the soul…

The rose’s ghost draped over its dry body. Its stem and leaves were a pale brown, and only one curling petal remained. Plant spirits didn’t have good physical memories: left alone, they remained in the condition of their death.

Delene lifted the ghost from the pot; it slid through her fingers like warm, wet noodles. She placed it on top of a healthy rose in another pot. In a few days the ghost would begin to follow the living plant’s energy, growing green and flowering again.

Delene had been able to see flower ghosts for as long as she could remember, and had started trying to grow them not long after her father died. At first she lined the wilted shades up on her window sill, hoping the sunlight would make them beautiful again. When that didn’t help, she tried putting them in soil and watering them, but that didn’t work either. When her mother wondered why she watered pots with no plants, so Delene put the ghosts in pots next to living plants. And then her wilted spirits began to stand a little taller, leaning toward the live plants as if they were the sun.

Next Delene tried placing a ghost tulip right on top of a living hyacinth. The tulip had been a light red cup-shaped bloom in life; the hyacinth was bright purple, its single spike covered by dozens of tiny flowers. The tulip straightened, but the hyacinth died. Delene supposed that the ghost absorbed too much of the living plant’s energy. She didn’t even find a spirit from the killed plant.

The tulip’s ghostly flower changed, as well: its petals still formed the usual shape, but where the stigma had poked up from the middle of the cup waiting to receive pollen, there now stood a stalk of spectral hyacinth flowers.

Flowers, living and dead, filled the garden around Delene’s house. She left extra space around the living plants for the spirit ones, making the garden look sparse to the rest of the townspeople, who couldn’t see the ghosts. But to Delene it was a beautiful mix of vibrant life and gentle death.

Delene placed the roses near the front window. The house only had three rooms: two bedrooms and a common room. The main living area took up the left half of the house, with a door opening to the front yard and another to the back. In the front were a wooden rocking chair and a shelf filled with vases of flowers. Above the shelf hung the house’s only painting, a portrait of Delene and her parents. A wood cookstove and kitchen area with a round table and three chairs took up the rear area. Delene’s room was at the front corner of the house, while her mother’s occupied the back, further from the noise of the street and closer to the warmth of the stove.

Gathering an armful of ghost irises wrapped in cloth, Delene went to her mother’s room. She paused in the doorway, and looked at the old withered form on the bed. Her mother had once been filled with beauty and life.

“Mother? Are you awake?” Delene moved closer to the bed and smoothed the blanket around the senescent woman. Her eyes were closed, and her breath whistled in and out. “I’m going to take some flowers to Father.”

Delene kissed her mother and left.

A single dirt track wound around the forty or so houses. In the center of town stood the market; just past it was the town meeting hall. Only a few other people were out on the road. They nodded quick hellos. A neighbor stopped to inquire about Delene’s mother, and Delene managed to smile as she said her mother was resting comfortably.

The cemetery was just outside of town and Delene walked the familiar path to her father’s grave. He had died when she was very young, but she remembered him a little. He took her for walks in the fields and forests, carrying her on his shoulders when she got tired, teaching her the names of all the plants and flowers. He even made her a special vase to hold her bouquets, a dark blue with whirls of gray throughout.

Delene knelt by his grave and placed the flower ghosts one by one around the headstone. These irises were a dark purple, and a collection of white, purple, and blue iris ghosts already stood around the grave. On either side of the headstone was a pot with a blooming calla lily. Dark green leaves reached upward around a single stem. At its end, a white modified leaf, shaped like an overturned bell tapering to a point on one side, wrapped around a yellow flower spike. Her mother had placed them there; they were her father’s favorite flower.

Soon her mother would leave her as well. She wished she could see people’s spirits, but she only ever saw plants.

When the irises were all arranged, Delene said a silent prayer for forgiveness and tipped out one of the calla lilies onto the ground. She shook off the dirt, wrapped the plant in the cloth, and returned home.

At the kitchen table she laid out the lily, then pounded its rhizome and roots into a pulp with a mallet. She placed the dying plant on the window sill in full sun. Calla lilies weren’t her favorite flowers — she preferred more color — but her father had loved them, and this one had grown close to him. Having its ghost around the house would almost be like having part of him back again.

Delene tried not to look at the lily too often as it shriveled. She spent her days caring for her mother, spoon-feeding her applesauce and soup, bathing her with a sponge, and treating her bedsores.

A few days later, the calla lily died. Delene was taking the laundry to the washtub out back when she noticed its ghost, lying like a pale reflection over its wrinkled body. She wondered when exactly it had died — she hoped it hadn’t lain neglected for too long.

She picked up the lily ghost, brought it to her mother’s room and laid it on her chest. The old woman stirred and opened her eyes halfway, revealing pale blue irises that seemed to stare up from the bottom of a mist-covered pond. “Del?”

“I’m sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Delene smiled at the old woman, then reached for a brush and began to smooth out her mother’s tousled hair.

She fell asleep again after just a few minutes. Delene walked to the window and opened the curtains wider, letting in the sun’s rays. It probably wouldn’t have any effect, but it still felt right.

The next day, when Delene brought in breakfast, the lily had perked up slightly: its stem and leaves had straightened and turned a crystalline green. Her mother woke up long enough to eat a few spoonfuls of applesauce before lapsing back into sleep.

By supper the lily had regained its former size. Delene’s mother still slept, but Delene left some broth and a bell on the nightstand, just in case.

In the morning Delene checked on her mother. She wasn’t breathing, and Delene couldn’t find a pulse. On her chest, the lily had fully blossomed.

Delene held her breath. She picked up the lily, cradled it in her arms, and carried it to the common room. She placed it in her father’s blue vase and centered it on the kitchen table.

The single pale white bloom wrapped protectively around her mother’s translucent face, positioned where the yellow stalk would normally be. She wasn’t young again, but she wasn’t old and empty any more, either.

Delene opened the window, and a fresh breeze wafted across the table. Her mother opened her eyes.